As embarrassing as it is to say this, I’ll admit that I have never read one of Jane Austen’s novels.
I do remember having a copy of Pride and Prejudice back when I had a Kindle. Or instead of the Jane Austen classic, it might have been Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Indeed, there have been many interpretations of the novel. My only real experience with Pride and Prejudice was when I watched a few minutes of the 2005 film adaptation with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfayden as Mr. Darcy. It left an impression on me. There was something about seeing these two attractive actors playing characters who didn’t get along, but who were also attracted to each other, giving off that palpable tension that I found enjoyable.
From the very beginning, Fire Island makes it clear that this is a modern take on the Jane Austen classic. It opens with Noah (Joel Kim Booster), the protagonist, reading out the first line of the book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There’s some metatextual humor in this line especially since the protagonist dismisses it as “hetero-nonsense.” Director Andrew Ahn and screenwriter Joel Kim Booster make it very clear that this romcom isn’t like the original with its focus on heterosexual relationships. This is going to be a very gay story and for yours truly, I was in.
The film’s premise is about Noah and his friends going on a vacation to the titular island, where their friend Erin (Margaret Cho) has a beach house and is their host for the week. The island is located off the shore of Long Island, New York, and it’s popular in the queer community. For Noah and his friends, it is an escape from the heteronormative society they inhabit. They can revel in their sexuality without any judgment from the outside world.
Now I will admit that I am not sure if this is a film that captures the essence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There is an element in the story that I will discuss which reminded me of the few minutes I watched of the Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden adaptation, but for the folks who are afraid that a prior reading of the classic is required, worry not. This may be a film that owes its identity to that story, but it still manages to tell an amazing original queer story. There are some incredible one-liners and some of the situations that happen in the film are downright comedic with their over-the-top vibe, yet they feel organic to the characters who find themselves in them. The comedy adds to the film’s summertime vibes, especially with Felipe Vara de Rey’s sunny cinematography of the island.
In the film, Noah attempts to help his friend Howie (played by the precious Bowen Yang) get laid. Throughout the film, there’s a sweetness to the relationship that I enjoyed, with Noah playing the role of the brash and confident big brother to Howie. Booster’s incredible script writing abilities and the acting by him and Yang add to the chemistry between the two; these are two dear friends who have known each other for a long time and have each other’s back. And I would like to note that while Howie is a cinnamon roll with his shy guy tendencies, Yang adds a lot of depth to the role, portraying a character who ultimately desires companionship and the opportunity to be vulnerable with someone he can trust in an intimate manner. For someone like me, a bisexual man of color, there’s something deeply relatable about that.
Noah’s desire to play wingman for Howie leads them to come across Charlie (James Scully), a doctor with whom the latter is smitten with due to his kind-hearted nature. He has his group of friends, who play a contrasting role to Noah and his friends. Whereas Charlie and his friends come from wealthy backgrounds and tend to be more composed in relation to the working-class Noah and his group of friends, who are more boisterous. And nowhere is this best shown with the relationship between Noah and Will (Conrad Ricamora), Charlie’s lawyer friend who appears to look down on the group and believes they are looking for free alcohol.
Even if I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I remembered those few minutes of the adaptation that I watched, and it was clear that I was watching a reimagination of the Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy relationship. And while I won’t go into further details so as not to spoil the film, I will say that I think the film does capture the tension that I felt was important about the relationship. There is a natural chemistry in the tension of Booster and Ricamora’s relationship. In a film where the horniness of the men on Fire Island is referred to and joked about, there’s an underlying sexiness to the tension that I greatly enjoyed. Felipe Vara de Rey’s cinematography of certain scenes involving the two have an intensity to them that I’ve been missing in a lot of these stories, and it is a delight to watch.
But there’s something deeper about the relationship that made me more attached. I mentioned that I was able to relate to Howie’s desire to be vulnerable and I wonder if that’s why I was able to develop an attachment to the relationship between Noah and Will. I’ve always had to deal with that struggle about being myself as someone who came to terms with being bisexual almost three years ago.
I was 15 years old when I realised that I was bi. I won’t get into the specific details, but I was so used to having crushes on girls that it surprised me when I developed crushes on boys. I wondered if maybe this was something I knew on a subconscious level, that I was attracted to boys but never understood what it meant, but I rejected it at the time, believing myself to be straight and going through a phase. After my first relationship ended, I found myself being attracted to men just as much as I was attracted to women. It took me a while to understand those feelings again after going back to the closet, but I eventually realised that maybe I wasn’t just someone comfortable enough in his heterosexuality to think men were attractive.
Fire Island tackles the theme of vulnerability with a beautiful poignancy. The way Andrew Ahm and Joel Kim Booster tackle that theme spoke to me on a personal level. As I was watching the relationship between Noah and Will, two men who may seem different, but who share that sense of vulnerability, I am reminded of my own vulnerabilities, even if it’s not in a romantic context. It reminds me of how I am glad I came to terms with being bi, and yet one of the toughest things I struggle with is showing that sort of vulnerability to people by coming out. There’s always that fear of being perceived, whether that be coming out to the people I know and love.
But then I remember that I took that step towards showing my vulnerability to some of the people I know and love. They’ve accepted me for it. Not everyone knows, but some of the people I love, and trust do.
And I feel better about that after watching the film.